While international travel remains off the cards, all we can do is dream of overseas adventures. Simon Day found himself longing to visit Japan.
For 18 months I hadn’t missed travelling. My twin sons were born on Boxing Day 2019 and for a year-and-a-half I’d been buried in the joy and pain of becoming a new parent. I’d been privileged to spend a large part of my 20s living and travelling overseas, and since returning home to Aotearoa had been constantly planning my next adventure to sample the sights, flavours and experiences of the world. But now my priorities had shifted. The restrictions of Covid-19 felt irrelevant to my bubble. I couldn’t see beyond my little boys.
Then one day I went to my favourite ramen restaurant. Greeted in a harmonious chorus by the staff – “Irrasshaimase!” – I was immediately transported back to Japan. The steaming bowl of noodles and an Orion beer in a frosted glass made me yearn to walk through the noren of an izakaya in a Tokyo backstreet.
I’ve visited Japan twice. I remember when I first arrived the feeling of being transported to another planet. The bright neon lights and the liveliness of everything had swamped my senses. Now, a plate of edamame and a bowl of broth and noodles had made me suddenly want to jump on a flight and experience it all over again.
While all I could do was dream of grabbing my passport for a flight to Narita International Airport, suddenly I started to see Japan everywhere. On a flight to Wellington as I stared out the starboard window across the west coast, Taranaki’s symmetrical cone made me think of Mt Fuji. Walking around the bars and restaurants of our capital’s laneways, I was reminded of my first night in Osaka, lost in the alleys of Shinsekai. Instagram posts from Queenstown featuring that town’s somewhat infamous onsen made me long to return to Hokkaido.
There’s inspiration everywhere you look, New Zealand’s natural beauty sharing many similarities with Japan. So while we’re still trapped in the confines of our borders, we’ve collected some of the best and in many ways familiar locations across Japan to keep you inspired for the day we return to international travel.
The first time I saw Mt Fuji I was entranced. Speeding between Tokyo and Osaka on the shinkansen, its perfect snow-capped cone gradually appeared out the window like it grew in front of my eyes. It’s easy to see why the mountain, rising an imposing 3,776 metres from the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, has become a spiritual and artistic muse,.
The sunrise from the summit of Mt Fuji is so special it has its own name – goraiko (御来光, literally “arrival of light”). The altitude allows for a view like no other, as the sun rises from the early-morning sea of clouds that shroud the island.
The official climbing season on Mt Fuji runs from early July to mid-September, with the round trip up and down taking between eight and 12 hours, depending on the trail taken. Many hikers choose to walk through the night to catch goraiko at the summit – for these climbers, or for anyone who needs them, mountain huts dotted along the various routes provide hikers with a place to rest and refuel.
Next time you walk the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, dream of climbing Mt Fuji.
Caving in Okinoerabujima
The remote coral island of Okinoerabujima is part of the Amami Island group, and sits between Kyushu and Okinawa. Accessed by ferry or plane, the island is famous for its 300 limestone caves.
The Shoryudo Cave is the largest and can be explored without specialist equipment. The 3.5-kilometre cave – with its first 600 metres open to the public – is full of ancient stalactites and stalagmites sculpted over millennia and its emerald pools glow under the headlamps of visitors. For the more seasoned explorer there are more advanced options across the island as well. It’s like a luxurious version of the Waitomo Caves.
After you’re done spelunking, consider heading out to Cape Tamina located on the north-western side of the island. Stare in awe at the limestone walls of the 52m-tall cliff as the crashing waves showcase the beauty of nature’s erosion – just remember to keep an eye on your footing to avoid any slips, it’s a long way down.
Skiing in Hokkaido
The train that ploughs its way from Sapporo to the ski town of Niseko feels vastly different to the bullet trains that catapult you between the main centres. It’s tiny and chugs slowly through the thick snow of the northernmost island, first along the coast then up through the forest and into the mountains.
The snow at Niseko was unlike any other I’d experienced. After one night of heavy snowfall the town was blanketed deep in white columns. The powder is thick and fluffy, the flakes visible as they fall through the sky. Skiing on these fields is like floating on a cloud.
But the best thing about skiing in Hokkaido is relaxing in geothermal hot pools of a traditional onsen, many of them set outside in stunning natural environments. The springs are rich in minerals and have a raft of reported health benefits for your skin and muscle recovery.
But onsen are more than just ski rehab, they are an important part of the Japanese way of life, and unique etiquette means they’re a cultural immersion too. Leave your inhibitions in the changing room as you’ll be bathing (in gender-specific pools) in the nude.
Surfing in Shikoku
Four years ago I bought a surfboard and a wetsuit. Embarrassingly, I’ve worn the wetsuit once (I accidentally put it on backwards) and never taken the board out of its bag. Watching the surfing at the Tokyo Olympics – the first time the sport had been included in the games – made me want to unpack the board for the very first time.
The smallest of Japan’s four main islands, Shikoku is a microcosm of the country’s natural beauty. With mountains, rivers, beaches and ocean, Shikoku provides access to everything a more adventurous traveller is looking for. It’s also considered one of the best places in Japan for surfing.
The island’s southern coast, in Kochi and Tokushima Prefectures, is where you’ll find the best waves, with a number of beaches and point breaks. But Shikoku’s most famous surf is its river mouth breaks and during typhoon season surfers come from around the world for these waves. If the swell is quiet, get your adrenaline hit canyoning at Nametoko Gorge or zipline through the Iya Valley.
Perhaps the next time I visit Japan I will pack my wetsuit and surfboard. I can only dare to dream.